Singapore Faces Shortage of Bus Drivers in Tourism Sector, Despite Increasing Salaries

Even as the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) expects the republic’s tourism sector to recover fully from the pandemic by 2024, some local travel agencies say they have not been able to shift up a gear due to a shortage of tour bus drivers.

A WTS Travel spokesman told The Straits Times that at least 50% of the travel agency’s coaches are currently not in operation due to a “tremendous” shortage of drivers.

WTS Travel offers coach services to popular destinations in Malaysia, such as Genting Highlands and Melaka, and also provides tours here. It has had to turn down potential customers owing to the shortage, the spokesman added.

“We are not fully utilizing our entire fleet and are not able to service and complete all business demands,” he said.

The company did not reveal how many coaches it has in its fleet.

STB said in January that international visitor arrivals to Singapore are expected to hit 12 million to 14 million in 2023, with full tourism recovery expected by 2024.

Singapore saw a total of 6.3 million visitors in 2022, a fraction of the record 19.1 million in 2019.

But factors such as the retirement of ageing drivers, a lack of new young drivers and the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to the severe shortage of tour bus drivers, said travel agencies and bus companies, which have not been able to capitalize on the tourism boom.

A National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) spokesman said irregular working hours and the availability of other jobs with more flexible hours are some potential reasons for the lack of new blood coming through.

“Many locals who are keen on driving as a career have chosen to be private-hire drivers, food and parcel delivery riders,” the spokesman said. “There are perks to being self-employed with flexible working hours and days, especially for those below 50 years old.”

A spokesman for bus chartering firm ST Lee Transport — which has only 60% of its bus driver positions filled — noted that most foreign workers from China and Malaysia had gone home when the pandemic began and were not willing to return and work in Singapore after the pandemic subsided, citing better work opportunities in their home countries.

ST Lee and fellow bus chartering company LongLim said new hires are hard to come by, even though both companies have increased the base salaries of drivers by up to 40%.

LongLim operations manager Ang Zi Wei said the company is currently paying its tour bus drivers a maximum of more than $5,000 a month after pay adjustments, taking into account factors such as overtime pay and peak-season demand.

Both firms said they have had to forgo up to 40% of new business opportunities and hire subcontractors to complete existing projects — but this comes at added expense.

“During peak periods, our own fleet may not be able to support the demand. The industry partners are engaged at rates between 1½ times and twice the value of our existing projects,” said the spokesman for ST Lee Transport.

Rates for new projects have also increased by 50% to 80% compared with before the pandemic due to a rise in operational costs such as manpower and certificate of entitlement prices, added the spokesman.

The Natas spokesman said that other than bus drivers, there is also a shortage of tour guides and workers in the reservations and operations positions.

Amid the shortages, the newly launched Manpower for Strategic Economic Priorities scheme has helped some agencies with the recruitment of foreign workers, the Natas spokesman added.

Introduced in December 2022, the scheme allows firms that advance Singapore’s key economic priorities to temporarily hire a few more foreign workers beyond prevailing S Pass and work permit quotas for their industry.

Other industries that can benefit from this scheme include the maritime, logistics and supply chain, and hospitality sectors.

The companies interviewed hoped that more can be done to help the transport and tourism sectors recover.

“The government aims to reduce dependency on foreign labor but overlooks the fact that there are certain jobs locals would not take up,” said the ST Lee Transport spokesman.

The WTS Travel spokesman said that to attract more new bus drivers, the agency hopes the government can help to cover some operating costs, such as by reducing diesel taxes so that it can spend more on hiring these drivers.

Noting that the transport industry is classified under the service sector, the ST Lee Transport spokesman said: “We hope the Government can reclassify our industry under a new category and allow for flexibility in hiring foreign workers, as they are the ones who are actively supporting the industry right now.”